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Anglers, dipnetters, commercial fishermen exchange barbs at Alaska salmon fretfest

Craig Medred
Crowds of Alaskans flock to the mouth of the Kenai River for personal use dipnetting each July. Loren Holmes photo

On the day an Anchorage judge denied the demands of commercial setnet fishermen wanting to harvest more Cook Inlet salmon, anglers and dipnetters in the state's largest city swarmed the auditorium of a state fish hatchery at an Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee meeting to bemoan the damage done by the monofilament “curtains of death" used by the commercial gillnet fisheries. 

Personal-use dipnetters were angry they couldn't catch as many fish as they wanted on the days they could fish. Kenai River king salmon anglers were upset that so few of the big fish made it back to their spawning grounds this year. Susitna Valley anglers were mad the commercial drift gillnet fleet in Cook Inlet has messed up runs of silver salmon to streams throughout the Susitna Valley basin.

Joel Doner, a commercial setnetter and a member of the committee, tried to make the case that maybe everyone should cool down and wait for the end-of-season reports on salmon catches and salmon spawning escapements before jumping to any conclusions, but he was largely ignored at public meeting called by the committee to listen to public views on Alaska salmon management.

The overwhelming view seemed to be this: Management is all messed up because all the state officials care about is commercial fishermen. Many said the state was putting the interests of those red-salmon catching commercial fishermen over the interest of saving struggling king salmon.

It was a first-class Cook Inlet Salmon Fretfest.

"I could whip people up," said state Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. "I don't want to do that." 

He then proceeded to whip people up, proclaiming 2013 "possibly the worst dipnetting ever," and lamenting the commercial salmon gillnetters who intentionally create big wakes behind their boats as they head to sea from the mouth of the Kenai River.

The suggestion is that the commercial fishermen’s wakes are intended to soak dipnetters working off the beaches at the mouth of the Kenai.

"No fish, and you've got water in your waders," Gara said. "I don't think dipnetters were treated fairly this year."

Complaining dipnetters 

Whether they were or they weren't remains to be calculated. The dipnet season closed on July 31; catch numbers to actually demonstrate how well the dipnetters fared won't be available for weeks.

That hasn't stifled the anger of the masses. The main complaint from many seems to be that the were no fish available on the day they went to the Kenai or Kasilof rivers, dipnet in hand. 

Ever since Costco started selling dipnets, a sense of entitlement among personal-use fishermen seems to have grown. It is built around the idea the system is supposed to work like this:

You go to the Big Box Store. You buy your dipnet. You drive south from Anchorage 150 miles to Kenai to get your fish just like you got your net. And if it doesn't work out quite this way -- if the harvest becomes less like shopping and more like fishing, a pursuit at which people sometimes get skunked -- someone should be blamed.

Thursday at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery, either commercial fishermen or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- or both -- were targets.

Dipnetters complained that commercial fishermen were making a year's income in a few weeks out in the Inlet while dipnetters were forced to make do with the fish that got past the commercial nets. Consequently, they couldn't catch enough to feed their families.

Always ready to make a bad situation worse, one commercial fishermen got up in front of the committee to announce, "If I make a year's worth of money in a few weeks, it's my business."

Actually, as people on all sides of the debate pointed out several times, that's not exactly the case. The fish are a common-property resource belonging to all Alaskans -- commercial fishermen, dipnetters, anglers, bear watchers (without fish to feed the bears there are no bears to watch), and even citizens who couldn't give a hoot about salmon.

How the salmon are managed affects the economy of the state, after all, and the economy of the state affects everyone. But there wasn't anyone at the meeting arguing for the thoughtful economic management of salmon in the best interests of all Alaskans.

Everyone was way too wound up for that, sometimes with a valid reason.

Not all gloom and doom

The king return to the Kenai this year is dismal, and king returns in other area streams aren't that good. Sockeye salmon returns to northern Cook Inlet continue to be weak. Silver salmon returns are lagging in places.

But it's not all doom and gloom. To date, nearly 1.3 million red salmon have made it past the commercial nets and dipnets into the Kenai River. That escapement is more than is needed for spawning. The number of fish is making for decent fishing for anglers along much of the river.

Meanwhile, to the north, almost 3,600 silver salmon had by Aug. 1 passed the weir on the Little Susitna River, one of the Wasilla area streams most popular with anglers. The count was 120 on the same date a year earlier.

"We've got to temper the emotion," said Doner, the commercial fisherman. "There's problems, I understand that...but we're still in season."

Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, made a similar argument. The Council represents recreational hunters and fishermen across the state. It's OK to get upset in July, Arno counseled the crowd, but it really doesn't do much good.

Complain during winter, spring 

The time to get upset, he said, is when the state Board of Fisheries meets over the winter to set fishing regulations. The target of residents’ wrath should not be state fisheries biologists, but those with political power.

"First, you have to have a governor who appoints (the right) people to the Board," Arno said, and then you have to pressure those people to make the decisions you want when the board meets in the winter and spring.

"It takes people showing up at those meetings," Arno said. "That's how it works."

Commercial fishermen, he added, show up in droves when the Board meets. Dipnetters and anglers do not. Arno estimated they are usually outnumbered 10 to 1, a huge edge in the squeaky-wheel competition.

It's the same in the halls of the capitol in Juneau. There the commercial fishing industry wields considerable influence. "It's amazing the clout they have," Arno said.

The often so-so dipnetting at the mouth of the Kenai this year, others noted, was the direct result of Fish and Game managers following the Board’s directions. The Board dictates that red salmon will, throughout the month of July, be managed for the commercial fishery.

That is necessary, Doner said, because the Alaska Constitution dictates state fisheries resources are to be managed for maximum sustained yield, and if too many spawning reds get into the Kenai, the state won't get the maximum return. There will be what commercial fishermen like to call "over-escapement," and the return-per-spawner ratio will likely drop.

This doesn't necessarily mean fewer fish returning in future years, but it can mean the maximum return on investment -- so to speak -- might not be met. It's an argument commercial fishermen often make.

This time, though, it got some push back from committee member Zach Stubbs, who whipped out a copy of his Constitution and actually read what it says. It doesn't call for maximum sustained yield; it calls for sustainable management.

Several committee members are already voicing opinions that a spawning goal of 1.5 million -- up from the upper limit of 1.2 million now -- would be sustainable. Gara said state fisheries biologists told him 1.5 million would actually be better.

Were the committee and others to convince the Board to up the sockeye spawning goal, there could be more fish available for dipnetters and anglers.

Or maybe they would just be back to the numbers of the past.

Fish-counting technology

Many at the meeting questioned whether Fish and Game's new sonar counts fish accurately. They said the numbers reported by sonar counts don't correlate with fishing success as in the past. The suggestion was that the new sonar is over-counting -- or the old sonar under-counted them so significantly that a million really meant 1.2 million or more.

East side Cook Inlet setnetters who unsuccessfully sued for more fishing time in court also contended the new sonar was inaccurate. But their complaint is that it seriously under-counts kings.

Fish and Game says it is still trying to determine the accuracy of the technology, and the agency has been less than forthright about what it has found.

There actually seemed to be a consensus that Fish and Game has a credibility problem. No one from the agency was at the committee meeting to answer questions, which didn't help alleviate any of those emotions. In recent years, some said, the flow of information between state Fish and Game employees and the public seems to have slowed.

It is even worse with the media. Fish and Game employees who talk to reporters are now required to fill out forms detailing what was said, which makes many reluctant to talk to reporters. 

Fish and Game administrators say the paperwork-creating policy is all about keeping everyone talking from the same script, but the idea that everyone is expected to adhere to some script is what makes many in the public distrustful.

'Outnumbered, outpowered' 

Gara said he tried to call Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell this week to talk about Cook Inlet salmon management, but "she was unavailable." 

"I think we're out numbered in the Legislature, too," he added. "Or at least out powered."

Those sorts of comments served to stir the crowd even more. Whether this will mean anything in the future is hard to say. As Matthew Nicolai, a delegate to the Alaska Federation of Natives, warned the group, it doesn't help just to whimper and whine, you need to get organized.

"You don't have a seat on the Fish Board," Nicolai said. "If you want your voices heard, you've got to be very political....we're very political." 

The AFN has managed to maintain a subsistence priority for salmon fishing in nearly all of rural Alaska. 

"Subsistence, they get theirs off the top," Arno explained, and then others compete for what's left. If Anchorage dipnetters and anglers don't like the share they're getting now, he said, they need to get into the game and compete for more -- not just whine about a lack of fish.

"We have 10,000 members statewide when we should have 200,000," he said, noting that 200,000 members ready to vote as a block on fisheries issues would get the attention of state political leaders swiftly.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com